The Pro Bowl is this weekend, which means it's time to make fun of the Pro Bowl.
Of all the All-Star Games, the Pro Bowl is the most mocked, for two major reasons. First, it is the game that least resembles the sport it is supposed to be reflecting. Players only show up for the free trip to Hawaii -- which is why it was so bizarre that it was in Arizona last year, and that it might be in Brazil next year -- and the effort they put forth is, well, minimal. Now, this is the case in most All-Star Games: The whole point of an exhibition is that the stakes are supposed to be lower. But football is a sport that can't be played at half speed: Its inherent violence requires full participation, or none at all. Thus, the Pro Bowl is full of All-Pro linemen pretending to block each other and running backs jumping out of bounds with defenders more than 5 yards away. It's football without everything that makes it football.
The other reason people make fun of the Pro Bowl, of course, is that people still watch it, regardless of how awful it is, simply because it's football. This is also known as the why-there-are-so-many-bowl-games principle. Even if it's not really football, if it looks like football, people will watch.
And they still do, even if it varies quite a bit. Three years ago, commissioner Roger Goodell said he was considering getting rid of the Pro Bowl because the quality of play was so bad -- a policy that, if consistently implemented, could mean Cleveland might lose its team again -- in a statement that led to the weird Team Irvin/Team Rice draft construction they have now. But if you're looking for the one place baseball television ratings can actually beat NFL television ratings, this is it: In 2014, the year of Derek Jeter's final season, the MLB All-Star Game bested the Pro Bowl. (The Pro Bowl edged back ahead last year.)
We still have these All-Star Games, if more out of inertia than anything else. Our sports are becoming so efficient and self-contained that taking the stakes out of a game, having superstars show up just to show up, feels like a throwback, archaic and unnecessary. Yet we still have them, and it gives us something to complain about while waiting for the real games to return.
Thus! Your definitive, lazy Friday rankings of North American Sports Leagues' All-Star Games.
6. MLS. The idea of having the best players in MLS battle a superstar team from Europe is not inherently a terrible one. I'm naturally curious how the best Americans stack up against the world's top teams, sure. But making it the actual All-Star Game? Imagine if the NBA All-Star Game featured your favorite NBA players playing against a Spanish league team? There is something inherently defeatist about having your All-Star Game -- the signature showcase for your league -- import players from another, better league. Nevermind the weirdness of expecting players who don't play on the same team the rest of the year to be organized against a Euro team that plays together all the time. The MLS has actually won the last two seasons -- over Tottenham Hotspur and Bayern Munich -- but this game just doesn't feel like an All-Star Game.
5. WNBA. This one has its pleasures -- it has the inherent high-scoringness of a basketball game played with no defense, which means we get a chance to see the true offensive skillset of some of these women -- but this one has to fall near the bottom of the list simply because it's not played every year. On years when the Summer Olympics is played, the WNBA just doesn't have an All-Star Game. This is because of the WNBA schedule, obviously, but it doesn't speak all that well to your All-Star Game that it can just be canceled every four years and it's not that big of a deal. I did love when Team USA played WNBA All-Stars at Radio City Music Hall in 2004.
4. NFL. Yeah, it's just never going to be a real football game. Can you name one highlight from a Pro Bowl? One memorable moment? Ever? I wonder if there is someone out there who's a diehard Team Irvin fan who's painting his face and wearing all of his Team Irvin gear. Players can't run away from this game fast enough.
3. NHL. Color me intrigued about the new format. This year, for the first time, the NHL is having several All-Star Games. Three, to be exact: Each of the four divisions has its own group of All-Stars, and they form a bracket. There are two semifinals, played as 20-minute games, and then the winners play in the "finals." And best part: The games are all 3-on-3. (Don't tell me you wouldn't be intrigued by the idea of MLB having every division with its own All-Stars, playing three-inning games in a bracket format.) The NHL All-Star Game is this Sunday, just like the Pro Bowl. I'm far more likely to watch this.
2. NBA. The game is often ludicrous, with players just taking turns jockeying for alpha dog positioning, but that doesn't mean it's not still entertaining to watch these amazing athletes do amazing things. You could argue that the NBA All-Star Game is responsible for far more memories than any other sport's All-Star Game. Magic Johnson won several championships and is one of the best players of all time, and we'll still remember his first All-Star Game after his sudden retirement as much as we remember anything.
Also: Obviously, the fan experience at the NBA All-Star Game is above all others. It's definitely the game to plan a vacation around … though maybe not a family one.
1. MLB. The original and still the best, if for no other reason than it is the All-Star Game that most resembles the actual game it is there to honor. Sure, there's the occasional "pipe job," but when you sit down to watch an All-Star Game, you are, in fact, watching a baseball game. No other All-Star Game can honestly say that. Now, about that whole this time it counts business ….